Stress is contagious, but don’t let other people’s anxiety drag you down.
What is secondhand stress?
If you’ve ever gotten caught up in another person’s catastrophizing, you’ve experienced secondhand stress. Just as you yawn right after someone else does, your body is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of other people. During secondhand stress, your body latches on to the negative vibes of someone else who’s under pressure and goes through the same fight or flight stress response. “Our stress response is so sensitive that if one person is sending cues to another person, the other starts to mimic that,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress. “It happens in person when a person walks into the room and you sense their stress through the things they’re saying, their facial cues, and their speech.” By recognizing who triggers your stress response, you can fight secondhand stress’s harmful effects and avoid these signs that stress is making you sick.
You feel stressed, but you’re not sure why
One telltale sign of secondhand stress is that you can’t quite put your finger on what’s making you anxious. In these cases, the source of your stress could be someone else around you passing on the pressure. “Normally that comes from the self, but in this case we’re just picking up on someone else’s false alarm,” says Joe Robinson, stress-management and productivity trainer and speaker for Optimal Performance Strategies. “We don’t think about it, which is what makes it very insidious.” Read about these scary things that happen to your brain when you’re stressed, and how to calm down.
You’ve turned into a pessimist
Being surrounded by stressful people could ruin even the happiest of dispositions. Because your brain is wired for survival, you naturally pay more attention to negativity than positivity, making you extra sensitive to pessimism. “If you’re trying to think positively and the other person is being negative, there’s a higher likelihood that their negativity will pull you down,” says Dr. Hanna. To feel normal, your brain needs to balance every negative comment with three positive comments—which jumps to five in a work setting, she says. Make a point of talking about your team’s successes to avoid having tunnel vision for failures. Learn to see the bright side with these daily habits of optimists.
You’re rushing through tasks
If your deadline is days away yet you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, you might be a productive planner who likes to work ahead—or you could be reacting to unnecessary urgency from a workmate. “There’s this sense that every minute of the day is an emergency, and it’s not,” says Robinson. “It makes the other person try to hustle up and do things as fast as they possibly can.” If your quality is suffering for the sake of speed, take a step back and ask yourself if you really need to be pumping your product out so quickly.